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October 19, 2006

Programming on the go

If you want to take your work-in-progress program on the road with you, conventional wisdom dictates that you need to lug around a laptop. Not to mention people who don’t have a laptop, carrying one with you just to perform some code debugging might be an unnecessary hassle.

Here come some very portable solutions that can be purchased at very reasonable prices, especially when compared to the price of laptops.  Orbworks (www.orbworks.com) are the makers of PocketC, a C-like developing environment. In fact, most commands are exactly the same, although there are some limits when working with multi-dimensional arrays. PocketC runs on Palm PDAs and Windows CE machines.

If you plan to use it with a PDA or PocketPC, I hope you have an external keyboard handy. A more elegant solution is a Handheld PC, which is in effect a mini-laptop running Windows CE. They are long out of production, but refurbished units can be bought from companies like TigerDirect.com or Usedhandhelds.com. Or you can buy a used unit from Ebay. Prices for models capable of running PocketC range from 80dollars to 3-400 for the last generation models, some in mint condition and unopened. The two most popular Handhelds PCs are the HP Jornada (680,720,728 and 820) and the Nec Monbilepro (800 up to 900). All these devices have keyboards that are touch-type friendly, albeit with smaller keys.

The Jornada 820 is the largest of the bunch, almost the size of an ultraportable laptop. The other Jornadas are small devices slightly larger than a PockePc, while the Mobilepros are somewhere in between.

If you plan to buy a handheld pc, know that support for these discontinued devices is rare. The best place to ask for help or information is the community at www.hpcfactor.com.

Please note that there ore other programming applications out there for PDAs and Handheld PCs. Basic (www.nsbasic.com) and other more exotic languages have been ported as well. Also, the list of Handheld PCs I have presented is by no means exhaustive. There are many other clamshell devices out there running Windows CE. A bit of research before making a purchase is always recommended.

If you want a portable computer able to run more applications, paradoxically you have to go back further in time – and pay a higher price too. One of the first PCs, the 8086 XT got an ultraportable makeover in the early 90s. These DOS compatible palmtops, some running on AA batteries, are scarcer than handheld PCs. They are more expensive, but a lot of programs designed to run under DOS will function, provided they can fit in their memory and are able to accept older graphic modes to fit the palmtop’s limited display.

The best known DOS palmtops are the HP 95,100 and 200 series, the Poqet PC and the Sharp PC3100.The HPs keyboard has small keys not suitable for touch typing. The Sharp and the Poqet PC have much better keyboards. Visit www.palmtoppaper.com for information and purchase of DOS Palmtops, mainly the HP models. HPs  palmtops are sometimes available at usedhandhelds.com.

If you truly want a pocket solution, why, the solution is a pocket computer. These programmable calculators appeared in the early 80s, featuring a QWERY keyboard and a Basic interpreter. Programs were saved on tape, the cassettes being the type used in voice recorders. Sharp, Casio and Texas Instruments were the most popular manufacturers, and used units can be found on Ebay. Most have very little memory, thus not being able to hold complex codes, and the process of transferring your data to your Windows desktop would most likely cause some headaches. A serial interface would most likely have to be built from scratch.

 More modern examples of Basic programmable calculators are the TI92 and the TI Voyage, which have a Qwerty keyboard and can transfer data to your PC via a special USB cable. The downside is that they are definitely too bulky to be called Pocket Computers!

Later model Pocket Computers came with built-in peripherals to transfer data to PCs and also with a C interpreter. The Casio PB-2000C can be programmed in both C and Basic. Again, Ebay is the best source.

In conclusion, as long as your code does not require a lot of processor speed and memory, you have plenty of options for ‘on the go’ editing and/or compiling, without having to purchase a laptop.


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